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Op-Ed: The Real Story Behind the Teen Pregnancy ‘Pact’ (RH Reality Check)

By Karyn Brownson — Within hours of the publication of the Time magazine article suggesting that a spike in teen pregnancies at a Gloucester, Massachusetts, high school had been spurred by a “pact” made by several students to get pregnant and raise their children together, panic broke out. The story shot straight into breathless headlines and onto the anxious lips of talk show hosts. Maybe the girls made the pact because they want love! Maybe it’s because of the economy! Maybe it’s because they watched Juno! Maybe it’s because they admire Jamie Lynn Spears! Maybe it’s the school’s fault for providing day care!

It turns out that the “pact” may have been an exaggeration — or an outright fabrication. But pact or no pact, the public furor over this incident reveals our profound discomfort over the question what to do about teens who decide, for whatever reason, that they want to have children.

Why Might Teens Become Pregnant, Intentionally or Not?

First, we need to consider the circumstances in which the girls made their decisions. School funding cuts had eliminated Gloucester High’s sexuality education classes. If the difficult realities of pregnancy and parenting had been in the curriculum, perhaps some of these teens might have made a different decision. This is a problem across the country, where “abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs, which censor vital information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, are too often the “sex education” of choice.

But sex ed alone cannot solve the problem. Much has been made of Gloucester’s depressed economy and lack of community resources. Without adequate youth programming, or many options for girls after graduation, one can understand why a young woman might be excited to become a mother before she’s finished high school. The most successful community strategies for preventing teen pregnancy give young women the resources to pursue dreams that might otherwise seem unattainable or unrealistic.

And then there was the lack of access to reproductive health services. A school nurse reportedly quit when she was told she could not provide students with confidential access to contraception. Whether or not this contributed to the rise in student pregnancies, it clearly highlights the importance of making family planning options available for those teens who do become sexually active.

We would hope that with positive support from adults, community youth development programming, and educational and economic opportunities, these young women and others like them would feel they had other options. But what about the teens that do become pregnant — intentionally or unintentionally — and decide to continue the pregnancy? Nationwide, there were 138,000 births by young women aged 15 to 17 in 2002.

What About Teens Who Decide to Continue Their Pregnancies?

On the one hand, there are sobering statistics about the outcomes for teen parents and their children. Young women who have babies in adolescence are less likely than their peers to complete high school and go on to college (as evidenced by New York City’s 70 percent dropout rate for pregnant students in 2003), and more likely to experience poverty later in their lives.

On the other hand, as pro-choice advocates we believe in a woman’s right to make her own decision about whether and when to have children, including the decision to become pregnant and continue a pregnancy. This right is fundamental to human dignity, and it belongs to minors as well as adults. Legal rights do not depend on whether someone else thinks the pregnancy is a good idea.

The Gloucester case points to the need to strike a balance between identifying the problems that led to the difficult situation these young women (and indeed, all pregnant teens) find themselves in and respecting the life-changing decisions pregnant girls are forced to make. We have to come to terms with the fact that some girls will decide to get pregnant, and some of those who become pregnant will want to continue the pregnancy and keep their babies. We cannot run from the complicated questions intentional teen pregnancies raise.

Pregnant and parenting girls have as much of a right to complete their education as any other student. Support services provide a vital resource for girls who have made the decision to become mothers. Research shows that quality school-based support programs for pregnant and parenting teens and their children go a long way toward supporting not only academic success, but future economic stability and well-being. Rather than suggesting that these programs encourage teen pregnancy, we need to applaud this school’s commitment to keeping all students on the path to graduation and advocate for increased support for pregnant and parenting students in schools across the country.

A minor who is pregnant, deliberately or otherwise, cannot make her best choices without information and support. These young women did not get pregnant to make the nightly news. The frenzy of scandal should not eclipse our society’s responsibility to advocate for and support the reproductive rights of all young women.

Karyn Brownson is the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative.

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